The American Art of the Standing Ovation

On Friday M, J and I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Steppenwolf theatre, which has been getting rave reviews.  (SPOILER ALERT: this post gives away the play’s ending.)  I’ve been googling for half an hour and I can’t find one that knocks off more than half a star. This one from Time Out is representative.

We were underwhelmed.  The first act was outstanding.  The actors were great, the one-liners came thick and fast, and the first couple of shocks took our breath away (M and I hadn’t seen the play, or the film, before). The Steppenwolf reputation for powerful modern theatre seemed well deserved.

But then… this staging runs over three hours, with two intervals, and the power seemed to me to dissipate as the play went on and we got more and more tired.  Eye-candy Nick was undermotivated and not as eye-candyish as he should have been. George, as played by Tracy Letts, was almost hammy as he declared ‘Total War!’ through his teeth, shaking like a mountain in an earthquake, and it took too long for the avalanche to happen.

What should have been the final crescendo fell flat.  George tells his wife Martha that their beloved 21-year old son is dead, and that this has just been announced (at 5 in the morning) by telegram.  Surely you’re meant to half-believe, or at least not entirely disbelieve, that this might have happened between Acts 2 and 3.  But we didn’t, and the revelation that the whole existence of the child was a private fantasy came far too easily, with no surprise at all (like I said, I haven’t seen the play before and shouldn’t have seen it coming).  Then, at the end, both Tracy and Amy Morton made a hash of the final scene where Martha sobs and George comforts her.  I’ll cry at anything.  But I didn’t cry at this: it was empty, too slow to move me at all.  Martha was supposed to be speaking in broken half-sentences, but she sounded like she was reading a script and counting the pauses in her head.

And then there was a standing ovation.

Maybe our slightly oddly located seats ruined the final scene for us (we got standby tickets and ended up in the front row at the far stage left). Maybe we’re too young to get the pathos of washed-up people in middle age. Maybe, having missed dinner in the hassle of getting standby tickets, we were too tired and too hungry to give the play the attention it deserved, or maybe we’re just not American enough for this American classic.

But in any event there’s a serious inflation of the standing ovation going on Chicago.  I hardly remember ever being present at a standing ovation before we moved here.  I thought – at least in the theatrical world, rather than for politicians – they were the exception (Wikipedia, as ever, lends me useful support).  The retiring actress. The first night of an astonishing play that does something really new. The best Hamlet you’ve ever seen in your life.

Since we’ve been here, we’ve witnessed an ovation for Toni Morrison at a reading of her mediocre new novel.  I was willing to let that pass since she’s such a huge icon, especially to black Americans.  Another for a ho-hum performance by a solo pianist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And one for a play that did really grab me, Daredevil Hamlet, at a tiny budget theatre in Andersonville.  In fact, the only performance that I’m certain wasn’t greeted by a standing ovation was a lame piece of improv where only a quarter of the seats had been sold.

Once a few people have stood up – on Friday it was maybe twenty across the audience to begin with – everyone else seems to feel it looks churlish not to stand too, and before you know it you’re in the midst of a standing ovation. Which lasted, on Friday, for all of thirty seconds. The cast didn’t even come and do a second bow.

Now I’m wondering if all these rave reviews reflect the same undiscriminating enthusiasm as all the ovations, and whether I’m doomed to be the only woman left sitting for the rest of our time here.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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5 Responses to The American Art of the Standing Ovation

  1. Expat Mum says:

    I have resisted getting tickets for this because I never thought it would match previous versions. I used to have a subscription to Steppenwolf but half the shows were so-so at best so I stopped renewing.
    The thing I find funny about American shows is that the performers rarely come out for even one encore. Applause (or standing ovation), lights up and home. Shocks me every time.

    • That’s interesting to hear about Steppenwolf… I guess I’ll go again now I realise how easy it is to get standby tickets. And you’ve given me something else to fixate on observing at the end of the show, too!

  2. awindram says:

    Yeah, the standing ovations annoy me. I’ve noticed it everywhere as at first thought it might just be a Broadway thing. The other thing that annoys me, and this is perhaps more Broadway, is that if there’s a famous actor or personality in the cast they’ll get a cheer from the audience the first time they enter on stage.
    I made some quick observations on my blog about this last summer –

  3. awindram says:

    Yes, it’s bizarre. The only time I’ve ever applauded films is if it’s a silent film with live music accompaniment.

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